The act of truly understanding essential questions is something we have explored for centuries. Teachers, philosophers, warriors, poets, musicians and the like have always asked the big questions. It has brought them to knowledge, self-fulfillment, and joyful discovery. How do we continue this tradition in our schools?

There’s a quote by revered cellist Pablo Casals that says this:

“Each second we live is a new and unique moment of the universe, a moment that will never be again. And what do we teach our children? We teach them that two and two make four, and that Paris is the capital of France. When will we also teach them what they are?”

So much inquiry, so little time. How do we revel in the type of inquiry that is really important? What about those questions that recur throughout our lifetime that lead us to uncharted territory? What’s that carrot on the stick that leads us to more and more questions? It is in exploring and discussing those “essential questions” that we find mastery of subject matter.

Let’s take a look at 5 great tools to help you and your students with understanding essential questions.

Remembering a Legend

It begins with Grant Wiggins who passed away May 26, 2015. He co-authored a book with Jay McTighe called Understanding by Design (1999). It has become a cornerstone on essential questions. In this blog article, Wiggins introduced essential questions this way:

“What is an essential question? An essential question is—well, essential: important, vital, at the heart of the matter—the essence of the issue. Think of questions in your life that fit this definition—but don’t just yet think about it like a teacher; consider the question as a thoughtful adult. What kinds of questions come to mind? What is a question that any thoughtful and intellectually-alive person ponders and should keep pondering?

Keep in mind that essential questions are not the same as many of the questions that teachers typically ask. These are usually in the form of Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How. These are questions that seek to arrive at a fact or even a discovery.

Understanding Essential Questions

There are three connotations of essential questions that should be addressed:

  1. Those that recur throughout one’s life: Is science compatible with religion? What is justice?
  2. Those questions that refer to key inquiries within a discipline: What is healthy eating within the field of nutrition? Is history capable of excaping the social and peronal history of its writers?
  3. Those questions that help students make sense of important but complicated ideas, knowledge, and know-how: In what ways does light act wave-like? How do the best writers hook and hold their readers?

Now we have a definition and some examples. Let’s take a look at how essential questions are arrived at through “backward planning.”

In this white paper from ASCD, we see that essential questions are derived from what we call understandings. Think of these as “basic truths which we consider self-evident.” When you can define these basic tenets of your subject matter, you can arrive at questions that go further.

Example (Understanding): Great literature explores universal themes of human existence and can reveal truths through fiction.

EQ: How can stories from other places and times relate to our current lives?

Continue to look at your standards and the important concepts, and do not stop at bare facts questions. Go further.

More Tools for Understanding Essential Questions

We looked for presentations that would help you with understanding essential questions. We found this presentation on Prezi by Denise Alter:

We also found this one by Elizabeth Broderick:

Here’s a Slideshare presentation by Linda Foote:

One final resource to share is this quick read that helps students generate their own questions, which is our ultimate goal as teachers.

Neil Postman says, “Once you have learned how to ask questions–relevant and appropriate and substantial questions–you have learned how to learn and no one can keep you from learning, whatever you want or need to know.”

To finish Pablo Casal’s thought, “You may become a Shakespeare, a Michelangelo, a Beethoven. You have the capacity for anything. Yes, you are a marvel.”


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